Fleet Foxes emerged out of nowhere in 2008 to craft one of the most beloved albums of the aughts with their self-titled debut (and continued the good-will with last year's well-received Helplessness Blues
. J. Tillman, now performing under the moniker of Father John Misty
, was the drummer for Fleet Foxes from 2008 to 2012 but has left the band to record his own solo material. While we regret losing any part of the formula that made Fleet Foxes so successful, Tillman's debut solo album, Fear Fun
, is such an affecting and haunting record that we understand why he may have wanted to leave the nest. For anyone expecting his first album as Father John Misty to be Fleet Foxes-lite, rest assured that Tillman has struck his own path as an artist though still finding the beauty (in occasional dark corners) that Fleet Foxes fans love.
If the Fleet Foxes dove headfirst into baroque pop/folk rock, Father John Misty instead embraces country and bluegrass in the most straight-faced manner of a supposed folk artist since the Decemberists on The KIng Is Dead
. He spends a fair amount of time in the album straddling the line between For Emma, Forever Ago
and Bon Iver
in terms of his sonic flourishes, but at the heart of Fear Fun
is a man that grew up loving twangy 70s bluegrass and 70s soft rock/southern rock/west coast pop. Armed with a soaring falsetto (that literally gives me chills on the album's best track, "Nancy From Now On"), J. Tillman tackles heavy subject matter (sex, addiction, the boozy afterglow of debauchery) with a hauntingly beautiful voice that belies the album's heavy subject matter.
In addition to his simple but dynamic instrumental compositions, Tillman proves himself to be one of the most accomplished lyricists of the year. "Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea\
I could've sworn last night I passed out in my van and now these guys are pouring one for me" or "Fun times in Babylon\ That's what I'm counting on\ Before the dam goes up at the foot of the sea\ Before the new wing of the prison ribbon ceremony\ Before the star of the morning comes looking for me." He crafts poetry that is oblique but within the listener's grasp and lays his heart (vices and all) bare for the world to see. I haven't enjoyed parsing the lyrics of an album this much since Bon Iver
. If the album suffers from a lack of hooks or singles that you can latch on to instantly ("Nancy From Now On" a major exception), J. Tillman more than makes up for it with expert songcraft and astonishing lyricism.